Sunday, January 31, 2010

Status Report

So I've gone through January watching at least one movie every day, and while it's been fun, it's also been tiring. It's not a pace I am capable of maintaining, so I'm not going to maintain it. From this point on, I'll be updating less frequently, and with shorter updates. Life has its demands, and I must bow to them.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Something to Watch, Movie-wise

Film: The Apartment
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on itty bitty television.

It’s easy to think in this day and age with the scarcity of jobs in the world, it’s easy to think that employers can take advantage of their employees because the employees are scared to leave. That may or may not be the case, depending on both the employer and the employee. The Apartment would like viewers to believe that such has been the case for a long, long time.

C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works on the 19th floor of a large building for a larger insurance company. For his bosses, the biggest benefit that Baxter has is that his apartment is near the office. What this means is that Baxter frequently loans his place to the executives of his company for their trysts with willing young women, since those men can’t run off to a hotel, and certainly can’t bring a floozy home to their wives. So Baxter’s apartment substitutes as the motel of choice for the company executives and their mistresses. In fact, he keeps a desk calendar to schedule when he can’t go home.

Those executives have made a lot of promises to Baxter, and they finally appear to pay off. He’s called to the head of personnel, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who accuses Baxter of something underhanded—essentially that he’s using his apartment as a bordello for the upper management. Sheldrake comes on strong, but ultimately just wants the apartment for himself and his date.

The one good thing in Baxter's life is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the perky elevator operator with a moderately skewed way of looking at the world. The day that Sheldrake trades Baxter a pair of tickets for a Broadway show for the apartment key, Baxter invites Fran to the show. Unfortunately for Baxter, Sheldrake’s date is Fran Kubelik. For Sheldrake this is a chance to get her back, because Fran has dumped him. She agrees to the tryst, then, on Christmas Eve, attempts suicide in Baxter’s apartment.

Now Baxter has a real problem—the girl of his dreams is the mistress of his boss, and here she is, recovering in his apartment. Worse for him, he knows Fran’s connection with Sheldrake. He also knows that he’s going to have to choose between his upwardly mobile career and his girl.

The Apartment is a tough film to figure. It’s certainly a comedy in many places, but the comedy runs from charcoal gray to the deepest ebony. The comedy comes from comes from the presence of Lemmon, who plays his typical dopey schlub with his typical brilliance. Shirley MacLaine alternates between despair and bubbly. It’s easy, these days, to look at MacLaine and remember the heights of crazy she got up to in later years. In this film, the woman shows she had some serious acting chops.

If MacLaine is the emotional heart of the film, Jack Lemmon is its frantic nerve center. All he wants is his life back, his apartment, and to be left alone at first. Eventually, all he really wants is Fran Kubelik. On the way there, he tries his best to keep himself together, going so far as to lie to Fran about Jeff Sheldrake’s feelings for her to keep her spirits up, pretending that Sheldrake cares for her more than he does.

For me, the most interesting thing is Fred MacMurray, who is a complete sleeze. MacMurray made a career of being a nice guy, and only played a total creep in two films: this one and Double Indemnity, another classic from Billy Wilder. He’s a dirtbag out only for his own pleasure and completely without scruples or morals. Jeff Sheldrake cares for no one and nothing but himself, and possibly his children.

While certainly not the raciest film ever made, or likely even the raciest film of the 1960s, but it deals very frankly with the idea that lots and lots of married men had affairs. The film doesn’t take any moral position on this, other than making the quartet of executives who use his apartment a collection of nitwits and bumblers and to make Sheldrake a heel. Beyond that, there’s not anything that suggests the film has an opinion on these men or their actions. In fact, virtually no one takes the blame for anything but Baxter, who takes a punch on Sheldrake’s behalf. He is the karmic victim of the crimes of his bosses.

The question here is what price a man is worth—his pride, his soul, and everything he stands for. It takes Baxter the entire movie to answer that question, but answer it he does, and with authority.

Billy Wilder, who managed to make films in any variety of genres, managed to put all of them in this one, and did it perfectly. The Apartment won a Best Picture Oscar, one for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and two others, and it deserved every bit of all five.

Why to watch The Apartment: Magic.
Why not to watch: Your world requires Shirley MacLaine to be crazy and Fred MacMurray to be pleasant.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Everyone Watches Rick's

Film: Casablanca
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

Years ago, I worked with a guy who had a Casablanca poster on the wall of his office. I commented on it one day, and he replied with something about how the director (Michael Curtiz) made one of the greatest films in history and never did anything else noteworthy. I never asked if he was joking, so to this day I don’t know if the guy was seriously that unaware of the career of Curtiz or if he thought he was yanking my chain.

Curtiz, of course, is one of the great film stylists of the 30s and 40s, and still one of the greatest film directors to ever stand next to or behind a camera. While plenty of his films are worth watching over and over, Casablanca is the masterpiece. No other film has such a wealth of incredible memorable lines—it feels like half of the great lines in American cinema are from this film. Even toss aways like “Round up the usual suspects,” if they didn’t come from here, were made famous and immortal here. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest, for instance, that “Here’s looking at you, kid” was around long before this film, but it’s a rare person who doesn’t associate that line with this movie.

An American named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a bar in Casablanca, in what is still Free French territory, at the end of 1941. The Nazis have taken over most of Europe, and the only route to America is through Lisbon. The only safe route to Lisbon is through Casablanca. So, in addition to the usual residents, the Vichy French, and some Germans, Casablanca has become a city of refugees looking for a way out.

Also in Casablanca is Captain Renault (Claude Rains) of the police. He is an amiable but thoroughly corrupt official, willing to let people leave the city for enough money or, in the case of attractive women, other favors. He allows Rick to keep his club open because Rick lets him win at roulette and because, to his knowledge, Rick has never helped anyone secure the papers necessary to leave the city.

Ugarte (Peter Lorre) does arrange such trips, and he has recently killed two German couriers who carried papers that are usable by anyone and cannot be questioned—a prize worth a huge fortune in the city. He gives these to Rick to safeguard, and is immediately captured by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) of the SS. As Ugarte exits, a refugee couple arrives: Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Lund is an agitator wanted by the Germans. Renault is told to never let him leave Casablanca alive, but Rick has a way to get him out of the city. Unfortunately for Laszlo, Ilsa had a torrid affair with Rick in Paris when she thought her husband was dead. Now, Rick has to decide if he wants to let Laszlo go, to flee with Ilsa himself, or keep Ilsa with him in the doomed city.

It is a nearly perfect love triangle. Ilsa truly does love both of the men completely, and is torn between them. Laszlo, in many ways, is the true ideal. He fights for what he believes in, is daring and courageous, strong and true. He has survived concentration camps and weeks on the run to stay with her, and as they ran from Europe, he never left her at his own peril. Rick, on the other hand, is gruff on the exterior, but frequently shows throughout the film that he is completely sentimental and frequently acts in ways that go against his best interests. Ingrid Bergman was never more beautiful than in this film, making the decisions that the two men make both heartwrenching and believable. Any man would make tough choices for her.

A running (and famous) theme through the movie is the song “As Time Goes By,” mimicked on the piano by Rick’s pet musician, Sam (Dooley Wilson). In reality, Wilson was a percussionist and watched someone off-screen to copy the movements. The song was evidently Rick’s and Ilsa’s in Paris, and when Sam plays it, it immediately returns the pair of them to their affair in Paris and the invasion of the city by the German Army.

The story is a great one, and there are memorable scenes throughout the film. Peter Lorre is great in his role as always, and incredibly memorable despite the fact that he’s only in the movie for a few minutes. The most moving scene in the film involves the singing of the French National Anthem in Rick’s club as the expatriates drown out the singing of a group of German soldiers. It is this scene that causes the third act of the film, and ultimately one of the most unforgettable climaxes filmed.

If you are the type of person who refuses to watch a black and white film because it is black and white, shame on you. Casablanca would not be improved by being in color in any way. Casablanca will still be worth watching and still be studied 100 years from now, 200 years from now, and 300 years from now.

Why to watch Casablanca: There has never been a greater romance filmed, and the rest of the film is pretty damn good, too.
Why not to watch: Because you are a stupid, stupid person.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Hidebound Hero

Films: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Format: DVD from Mokena Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

Change is difficult, but in today’s world, it’s something that comes faster and faster all the time. We learn to adapt to change because we live in a world where we have to. This hasn’t always been the case, of course. There was a time in the past when the world changed slowly, and it became easy to become comfortable, particularly for those of the wealthy class.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp concerns itself with Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), a British officer of the old model. While the first few minutes of the film take place in the mid-1940s at the height of World War II, most of the film takes place in flashback. However, those first few moments are important. We learn that the British Home Guard is planning a training exercise. “War starts at midnight” is the phrase, but a contingent of troops believes it would be more instructive to start the war immediately, acting more in the manner of the current modes of war.

This causes a stern, arguably extreme reaction from the man leading the Home Guard, General Wynne-Candy. To help us understand how Candy, frequently called “Shuggie” or “Sugar” Candy, became the tubby old general he did, we flash back a good 40 years to the Boer War, when Candy has returned from service in South Africa.

The story here is too long to go into details—the restored version of the film clocks in at just under three hours. What is important is the personage of Candy, the important women in his life, and the man who begins the film as his enemy and ends as his greatest friend. The first woman and the friend he meets almost immediately. Returning from the Boer War a decorated hero, Candy learns that a man in Germany has been casting slurs against Her Majesty’s troops. Candy travels to Berlin, meets up with Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), and fights a duel with Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Both men are wounded—Candy takes a slash to the face that causes him to grow a mustache—and wind up fast friends. Both men also fall in love with Edith, but Candy doesn’t realize he loves her until much later, after she has married Theo.

Candy marries Barbara Wynne (also Deborah Kerr), a nurse he met on the last day of World War I in France. The two have a quick courtship and an evidently happy marriage, in part because Barbara is the absolute image of Edith. In the 30s, Barbara dies in Jamaica.

During World War II, Theo is a refugee from Germany, Edith having died in 1933. Candy has been forcibly retired from the service, but signs up with the Home Guard to make himself useful and to use the years of military expertise he has gained fighting in a number of wars. It is here he meets the final woman in his life, Angela “Johnny” Cannon (Deborah Kerr for the hat trick). He had selected her as his driver out of 700 girls, again because she is the image of Edith, and in this case, his late wife.

What happens with Wynne-Candy is less important than his reaction to various events in his life. His reaction is, essentially, nothing unless it is to lash out against the changes that he cannot fathom and a world he no longer understands. He represents a sort of old-school guard of soldier who not only believed that war was an honorable profession, but lived the truth of it. Once a battle was over, once a fight was done, it was possible, even likely, to become good friends with your former enemies. At the end of World War I, he says to his aide Murdoch (the underappreciated John Laurie), “Right makes might.” His meaning is the England won, despite the treachery of the German Army—in the face of poison gas, the bombing of free cities, and tricks that an honorable foe would not attempt, Britannia still came out on top. Essentially, the Allied victory did nothing but reinforce his world view—that a man could still be an honorable soldier of the old school.

Time passes in interesting ways in the film. Since the bulk of the movie is concerned with Candy’s military service, the times between the wars are passed in montage. It is evident, for instance, that between the Boer War and World War I, Candy spent his time traveling and big game hunting. The years pass not with a flipping calendar but with the sudden appearance of a series of animal heads on the wall of his den. Additionally, even significant events like the deaths of Barbara and Murdoch occur not in front of us, but merely as clippings from a newspaper, as if to say these events were not important enough to show.

Most interesting of all is the fact that the biggest moment of the film occurs when Candy is not present. Attempting to enter England during World War II, Theo gives an impassioned speech about why he left Germany, one of the most moving few minutes of film created in the 1940s or since. However, Candy misses the speech, in a way preventing him from understanding that his way of looking at the world no longer works.

Candy is an anachronism, a dinosaur, a horse and buggy in a world of cars, and everyone but Theo tries to insulate him from that reality. When Johnny becomes aware of her boyfriend Spud’s (James McKechnie) plan to circumvent the war game, she tells him he can’t because Candy is such a dear old man and it wouldn’t be fair. While possibly true, Spud’s entire point is that the time for playing fair has long since passed.

It’s worth commenting on the name of the film, since it does not appear to refer to anyone in the movie, and since the film ends with Candy standing tall and offering a salute. “Colonel Blimp” was a cartoon character in the U.K. from the 1930s to about the 1960s. Colonel Blimp was the personification of the ultra reactionary military leadership, unable to change, see reason, or even make sense. His statements were filled fire and brimstone nonsense along the lines of “By Gad, sir! Mr. Smith-Smythe is right! The only way to preserve a free press is to shut down the newspapers and prevent them from talking against us!” The film is not so much about the life and death of Clive Candy, but the life and death of this type of thinking.

It’s also worth noting that this film was created in 1943, at the height of World War II. Censors in England and Churchill himself tried to get the film banned, and prevented Laurence Oliver from playing the role of Candy. What’s most shocking in the film is Theo, who is, sympathetic, the voice of reason throughout, and German. The film was written and directed by the dynamic team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Pressburger, it should be noted, was a native Austrian who emigrated to England.

I did not know what to expect with this film, but I’m very glad I chose to watch it early in this countdown.

Why to watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: A great, gutsy story and incredible performances by Livesey, Kerr, and especially Walbrook.
Why not to watch: You fear change.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reality and Unreality in the Frozen North

Film: Nanook of the North
Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Any documentary filmmaker, amateur or professional, will deal with certain questions and concerns about his or her film. Predominant of these questions is how closely the film tracks with reality. It’s a question still being asked of documentarians today, just as it was asked about the very first people who tried to depict real life on a big screen. Certainly this is the case with Robert Flaherty, the man behind what is considered in many ways to be the first ever documentary, Nanook of the North.

Flaherty had been sent into the Canadian northlands to scout for the possibility of rail lines and for minerals. Through these trips, he came into contact with many of the native people who lived in this region of the Canadian wilderness, the Inuit, more commonly referred to as Eskimo. Realizing that the way of live for these people was changing and changing rapidly—and that he was a major part of the reason for that change, Flaherty took it upon himself to document the lifestyle of these people.

When Flaherty started, there were no conventions for how to properly create a documentary, thus he did what he thought was right. He was, and in fact still is in many cases, criticized for the more romantic elements of his film that have little to do with the reality of the lives of his subjects. While the film tells the story of Nanook, an Inuit hunter, and his family, the reality is that his “family” as depicted on the screen are not really his. Nyla, his wife, is merely another Inuit who looked good on camera.

Other changes brought in by Flaherty include such aspects as the way Nanook and others dress and hunt. By the time Flaherty worked in the sub-Arctic, guns had become a much more common way of hunting than harpooning; building materials more traditional for the southern climates were used in place of snow and ice igloos. Even Western clothing had made inroads into the north, and the costumes worn by Nanook and his “family” were more idealized views of a primitive time. For these changes, Flaherty can be forgiven—his goal was to document a lifestyle before it disappeared completely, and to do so, he needed to Inuit to act, look, and dress in more traditional ways.

As this is a documentary, there is no actual plot. Instead, the film attempts to show the day-to-day struggle of the people who live in one of the most unforgiving and terrible environments on the planet. Nanook, as the man the film is named for, is obviously the main focus of virtually every inch of film. The film, with at least some level of accuracy, shows what he must go through simply to survive, from hunting walrus and spearing salmon to building a traditional igloo out of the raw materials on the ground.

Nanook of the North is, admittedly, far less than it would be if such an ethnography were to be created with modern standards by modern filmmakers. But working from essentially nothing, with no one to guide his hand or his direction, Robert Flaherty created an entire style and genre of film that continues to be used, developed, and built upon today. Flaherty created a new way to look at the world around us, and a new way to view the reality of our world.

Is Nanook of the North worth your time? That’s a valid question. It may be that you have absolutely no interest in the way other people live or lived, in which case you will find nothing here to engage you. On the other hand, what are movies but the depictions of the lives of others? The influence of this film is still being felt, and will continue to be for as long as a filmmaker decides to show reality rather than a piece of fiction.

Why to watch Nanook of the North: It’s where documentaries came from.
Why not to watch: You don’t care.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Japan vs. America

Film: Ringu (Ring)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

For one reason or another, certain cultures seem to be prone to a particular genre of film, and a specific film can often be pegged as being from a specific culture without too much trouble. It would be difficult, for instance, to watch any film connected in any way to Michael Bay and not know the film came from the U.S. There’s a particularly American feel to films of his style.

Horror films, at least good ones, have lately frequently had the stamp of Japan on them, even when they are almost immediately remade by American filmmakers. Movies like The Eye, The Grudge, and The Ring have all had American makeovers that have been pretty well received by audiences in general, but are substantially less than their original Japanese incarnations. While much of the horror translates from one culture to another easily, the cultural elements that truly make the film work do not translate from the Japanese well at all.

For instance, many of these films have a strong connection with horrific elements of water. Americans in general don’t have the same relationship with water that the Japanese do. Japan is all coastline, and everywhere is pretty close to the sea. That’s not the case for many places in the U.S. I live 1,000 miles from the closest salt water, so my particular relationship with the ocean is distant at best. In Japan, life comes from the ocean in the form of food. Death comes from the ocean as well in the guise of tsunamis. Thus, Japan’s relationship with water is far different than that of much of America’s.

Similarly, many Japanese horror films deal with themes of isolation and technology. These are again very Japanese themes. Japan is an overcrowded island, and solitude can be difficult to find, but since people are often in the company of others, solitude can just as easily be terrifying, and frequently, technology is used to isolate us from other people.

Ringu is arguably the best of the new breed of Japanese horror film (although others would opt for the more disturbing and psychological Audition). Ringu works because of its technology, since the film centers around a cursed videotape. Essentially, a bizarre little film has been left on a videotape at a resort hotel. Everyone who sees the tape lives for a week and then dies mysteriously, for no apparent reason, and with the most terrifying expression on his or her face.

The niece of a journalist named Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) sees the tape and dies mysteriously at home. Reiko, looking into the death, and the deaths of three other young people on the same day, discovers that the quartet spent a night at a resort hotel on Izu. There, she discovers an unmarked tape and watches it. The tape makes little sense—a woman brushes her hair, words move on a page, people roll on the ground, a man with a towel over his head points to the left. An eye appears with the word “Sada” reflected in it, then there is a long shot of a well. Immediately afterward, the phone rings, and Reiko now believes that she too has only one week to live.

Reiko shows the tape to her ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), a university professor. She makes him a copy of the tape, and the two begin going through it frame by frame on the university’s editing equipment. The pair begins investigating the meaning of the tape, trying to parse together words they hear in the tape and the meanings of the images. The week deadline takes on a significant meaning when their son, Yoichi (Takashi Yamamura) views the tape as well, and now has only a week to live himself. This creates an even more serious race to discover the hidden meanings on the video and discover a way to survive the curse.

Ringu works for a number of different reasons. The characters in the film are, perhaps because of their desperation, very smart, and it helps that they are both excellent researchers. They discover answers to the various hints in the obscure videotape because they are clever and dedicated as well as desperate, but in many cases, this cleverness does little to help them. This is what is truly disturbing about the film. In horror movies, we as the audience expect people who act stupidly to die just as we expect those who are smarter than the rest to be successful. Here, intelligence helps, but is by no means proof against a horrifying death at the hands of the cursed tape.

The most indelible image in the film is the girl from the video, hunched over with her hair hanging across her face. Dead or haunted kids are always terrifying, and here we have one of the most tragic and disturbing. However, the fact that the girl is tragic does nothing to change the fact that she is also one of the most evil spirits to appear in a film in ages. In fact, much of the horror in the film comes from the way the girl was treated and the reason for her cursing any who see her tape.

Ringu was remade in American as The Ring almost immediately, a trend that has become more and more common when it comes to Japanese horror films. The American remake is actually fairly decent, but not great. The reason the American film works, however, is because it follows the source material almost precisely, to the point where the two are essentially the exact same film.

In many ways, Ringu translates well to an American audience because of the theme of technology and its potentially terrible effects on all of us, which certainly helped the American remake. Additionally, the videotape itself is in many ways far more interesting than the one in Ringu. It’s clearer, at the very least, and has a number of additional elements in it that make it harder to follow and far more disturbing. It is also far clearer in the American version why the movie is named what it is.

Additionally, The Ring is in many ways more terrifying than the original Ringu because it has more throughout it that is disturbing. However, the final 10 minutes of Ringu are among the scariest moments of film I have ever seen. The implications of the ending are equally terrifying.

Which is better? I’d stick with the original if only because it’s the original.

Why to watch Ringu: Because the last 10 minutes will stick with you for a year.
Why not to watch: You’ve seen the American remake, which is essentially the same movie.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Comedy at 100 Miles Per Hour

Film: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

In the 1980s, there was no more powerful comedy team than that of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker. The team entered the 80s with Airplane! and wrapped up the decade with The Naked Gun, making the Police Squad television show and the cult comedy Top Secret! in between. While it’s difficult to argue with the success on all levels of Airplane!, there’s a lot to be said for the trio’s first cop comedy.

The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker style of comedy is to throw every conceivable idea possible that might possibly cause one single person in the world to laugh and add it to the film somewhere. A minute of film that doesn’t include at least four one-liners, a couple of sight gags, some slapstick and a bad pun or two is, in their world, a minute wasted. Any possible miscommunication is exploited for every possibility, anything that could call for a stupid joke is included.

That’s really the joy of this model of film is that even though some of the jokes might not work, and in fact many of them will not work for everyone, there are so many jokes throughout the film that plenty of the jokes will work, and often work more than once, even when you can see it coming a mile away.

The plot follows a bumbling police lieutenant named Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) as he tries to clear the name of his partner, Nordberg (O.J. Simpson before he got all weird and murdery) and prevent a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. Along the way, he is assisted by his friend Ed Hocken (George Kennedy), has a torrid affair with Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), the secretary of the film’s bad guy, Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban).

But with a movie like this, there’s no real concern about plot. Plot is secondary to throwing as much potential comedy on the screen as possible. For instance, in a montage of Frank’s and Jane’s first day together , the following happens. They run on the beach, Frank gets clobbered with a giant beach ball, Frank swirls a giant mass of cotton candy on his hand, the pair get matching tattoos, they squirt each other with condiments at a hot dog stand, ride bucking broncos, run on the beach again, sail a pirate schooner, come laughing out of a screening of Platoon, and run on the beach again, clotheslining another couple. Following this rapid montage, Jane says, “I had a wonderful day.” This loses a lot in the telling, because it’s a ridiculous scene, and it works completely.

The real selling point here is that it never stops. It’s not a film that translates well to being described, because so much of the comedy here is visual. Even the great lines like “sexual assault with a concrete dildo” don’t work nearly as well written down as they do in the film. This is a film that cannot be described but must be seen to be understood and believed. Films like this one have been copied plenty of times since, often by Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker themselves, but never again equaled. In fact, only their previous Airplane! can even come close to this level of insanity.

Aside from the comedy, the big selling point here is the exquisite cast. Leslie Nielsen has made a career for years playing essentially a sighted Mr. Magoo, completely oblivious to anything going on around him and always deadpan, a skill never better demonstrated than here. George Kennedy, an Oscar-winning actor, is equally braindead and goofy throughout. The real joy here, though, is Ricardo Montalban, who is far funnier in the role by playing it straight than he would be by playing it for comedy.

Only other Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films come anywhere close to this. In the film’s 84-minute running time, there are at least 1,000 attempts to make you laugh. If you don’t laugh or at least smile at a quarter of them, have someone check you for a pulse.

Why to watch The Naked Gun: Few other films approach this level of constant funny.
Why not to watch: You’ve passed out from laughing too hard.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's Alive! Alive!

Films: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein), DVD from Highland Community College Library through interlibrary loan (Young Frankenstein), all on big ol’ television.

Movie conventions all start somewhere, and in the case of cinematic visions and variations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, they all start from James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein. At times, as is the case here, the conventions become so well known and so completely a part of the culture and architecture of our world that we lose sight of where these things came from. Think of almost everything you know about Frankenstein as a story. Virtually everything you know comes not from Shelley’s book, but James Whale’s film.

For instance, in Shelley’s book, there is no windmill laboratory. There’s no hunchbacked assistant named Igor (more on this later). There’s no laboratory filled with giant electrodes and machinery designed to expose the monster to a storm. These things, all of which seem to have become a part of what we all expect in a Frankenstein story, are from the movie.

This is a story you should already know. Essentially, a man wants to investigate the mysteries of what causes life. To do this, he robs a few graves, cuts down a few men from the gallows, and cobbles together a new body, which he brings to life with the power of a gigantic storm and a few handy electrodes. The monster escapes, terrorizes the countryside, and is eventually hunted down by peasants wielding pitchforks and torches.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is the mad creator, and he brings the monster (Boris Karloff) to life not in private, but with an audience consisting of his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), his former professor Dr. Waldman (Edward van Sloan), his best friend Victor Moritz (John Boles), and his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). He and Waldman study the creature for a time until Henry breaks down after the creature kills the sadistic Fritz (Fritz, not Igor). Left on his own, Waldman plans to dissect the monster, but is killed instead when the creature is improperly sedated on the operating table. The monster then escapes and terrorizes the countryside.

Much of the movie concerns itself with the chase of the monster and the monster’s crimes, but until the last part of the film, the monster is played sympathetically by Karloff. In fact, even while the monster goes on his rampage, much of it is caused by misunderstanding or a simple lack of knowledge on the part of the creature. Karloff’s performance is masterful because it is so tragically human, and while he never speaks and is off-screen for much of the film, it is he who drives the action.

There are, naturally, significant differences between the book and the movie. The book, for instance, is told in flashback, and the nature of the monster’s creation is never elucidated. The story takes place somewhere vaguely in Europe, while the book occurs in Switzerland. There is no assistant. Even the names have changed. In Shelley’s book, Frankenstein’s name is Victor, and his best friend is named Henry Clerval. Here, he is named Henry, and his friend is Victor. But the thrust of the story is the same—that the person of Dr. Frankenstein is a promethean figure who dabbled too much in things that were better left alone.

Of course, once started, such desires to create life cannot be quickly squashed, which brings us to the first of many sequels: Bride of Frankenstein. The name of this film is somewhat misleading, since it concerns itself with the bride of the monster rather than the bride of Frankenstein himself. This film has the rare distinction of being arguably better than the original that spawned it.

The story follows along the same basic lines of the original film. We start with the personages of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron discussing Mary Shelley’s book. By way of exposition, Byron covers the high points of the original movie, claiming that they come directly from Mary’s work, a bit of a laugh for anyone who has read Shelley’s original work. As her new story begins, since this is essentially told as if she were relating the tale to Byron and her husband, we discover that the monster survived the fire in the windmill, and that Henry Frankenstein survived his fall from the top of the windmill.

While Henry (still played by Colin Clive) recovers from his ordeal, he is visited by a Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Pretorius claims to have discovered the secret to creating life as well. He demonstrates this by showing Henry his creations, which are tiny, perfectly formed people. Pretorius claims that rather than animating dead tissue, he generated his little people from inorganic matter in the same way nature does, by growing them. His desire is to create a woman as a mate for Henry’s original creature, because while his own creatures are more attractive and in some sense more pure, Dr. Frankenstein was able to create something of significant size.

The monster (still played by Boris Karloff) continues to roam the countryside, and when spotted by a shepherdess, is again hunted down by an angry peasant population. The monster is captured and almost immediately escapes, much to the dismay of constant comic relief, Minnie (Una O’Connor). The monster eventually comes across an old blind beggar, who takes him in, and teaches him to speak.

When he is discovered in the beggar’s cottage, the monster leaves, robs a grave, and returns to Frankenstein’s castle. He demands that, since he is alone but has now known a friend, that Pretorius create a mate for him, a mate created in the same way he was, and played by an uncredited Elsa Lanchester, who is listed on the cast list as just a question mark. When Pretorius doesn’t run from him immediately, the monster is convinced that he has found another friend. Frankenstein is much more difficult to convince. In fact, he is forced into helping despite his recent marriage to Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson).

Pretorius has grown a new, unused brain in his lab. What he needs is Frankenstein to create the body, coercion created by the presence of the monster. Naturally, Henry is disturbed by the appearance of his creation, but agrees to help because of threats against himself and, in particular, against Elizabeth, who is stolen away by the monster to act as a hostage.

Whale’s second film works in many ways because it is more terrible and tragic than the first, but also contains little touches of humor throughout. This is a serious film, but is not so serious that it doesn’t intentionally inject levity throughout, often in the person of Minnie. Some of the classic Frankenstein tropes come from here as well, such as the henchman shouting about the storm being ready.

The basic Frankenstein formula has spawned a number of additional stories, some good and many, many bad. Of all of them, if I’m honest with myself, the best is Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Despite my personal love for a film like The Re-Animator, the parody still is the most interesting and best film in the genre that isn’t one of the original two.

Here, we have a new Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), who so wants to distance himself from the actions of his grandfather that he pronounces his last name as “Fronkensteen.” A gifted neurosurgeon, he inherits the entirety of the Frankenstein estate where he encounters many of the trappings of the original story. He says goodbye to his fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) and heads off to Transylvania. He is quickly introduced to Eye-gor (Marty Feldman), the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein’s original hunchbacked servant. He also encounters the sexy Inga (Terri Garr), Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) whose name causes horses to whinny, and Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars), whose most distinguishing characteristic is his mechanical right arm.

Once at the castle, Dr. Frankenstein the younger discovers the original lab of his grandfather as well as all of the notes on the creation of his original monster. Eye-gor goes out to find an appropriate brain for the monster, but comes back with an abnormal one, which naturally causes the monster (Peter Boyle) to be much less than he wanted.

The reason that Young Frankenstein works as well as it does is because it includes many of the same scenes that are in the original two films. For instance, the blind beggar scene in Bride of Frankenstein is brilliantly parodied here with Gene Hackman in the role of the blind man, who in short order dumps hot soup in the creatures lap, smashes his wine glass, and lights his thumb on fire, all in the guise of attempting to be friendly.

What also makes Young Frankenstein work is the combination of both broad and subtle humor. There are dozens of little touches thrown in that aren’t necessarily obvious right away, but that add significantly to the general tone of the film. For instance, Inspector Kemp wears an eyepatch and a monocle on the same eye, a subtle comedic touch that is never questioned or referenced throughout the film. This is Mel Brooks at his best because it is Mel Brooks before he started applying every joke he made with a sledgehammer.

Filmmakers who currently create films that they call parodies should take a good long look at the connection between Young Frankenstein and the two films that are its source. Young Frankenstein works not because it does the opposite of the original films, but because it does the same thing skewed just a few degrees to one side or the other. It works because the parody is funny for those who know little of the original story and funnier for those know more.

Why to watch Frankenstein: The best of the reanimation films and the source of virtually all of the Frankenstein tropes.
Why not to watch: I can’t think of a single reason not to watch.

Why to watch Bride of Frankenstein: More mad science, more comedy, more horrific.
Why not to watch: You like your reanimation films without comedy.

Why to watch Young Frankenstein: You’ve seen the originals and want to see another side of the story.
Why not to watch: You have no sense of humor.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wu Du, That Voodoo That You Do So Well

Film: Wu Du (Five Deadly Venoms)
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television

A dozen years or so ago, my first teaching job was in a martial arts school. This makes me officially a bad ass and able to kill you in more than a dozen ways in under 10 seconds. Strangely, despite my love of such things, I’m not a huge aficionado of martial arts movies. I don’t have a huge collection of Jackie Chan films, haven’t seen more than a small handful of movies starring Chuck Norris, and don’t have a shrine to Bruce Lee in my house.

However, there were exceptions, and for years I said that my favorite chop-socky film was Five Deadly Venoms, also known by its Chinese name, Wu Du, and I picked up a copy of it years ago. So it was incredibly shocking to me to discover that this film has appeared in every published version of the 1001 Movies. Evidently, even when I don’t really know anything, I still have the ability to pick out a winner.

Wu Du is unusual in the martial arts genre for its complicated plot and extensive number of excellent martial artists. See if you can follow this: An old master is dying, and he sends his young student off to the city to track down his other five students. Each of these men was trained in a martial arts style defined by a poisonous creature—centipede, snake, scorpion, lizard, and toad. Each has his own particular strengths. Evidently, the master’s friend has a large chunk of money collected by the Poison Clans (same poison creatures as above) that the five former students will want. However, the master wants the money given to a charity. So, the plucky kid, trained to some extent in all five styles, must track down the others, find the money, defeat anyone who is using his Poison Clan style for evil, and, hopefully, survive.

Now it gets complicated. We switch to the city where the kid (Sheng Chiang), almost without trying, encounters the entire clan. Two, Centipede (Feng Lu) and Snake (Pai Wei) are after the money for nefarious ends, and kill the old man and his entire family in an effort to find the money. The third, Scorpion (Chien Sun), wears a mask, and his identity remains a mystery until the end of the film. The last two, Lizard (Philip Kwok) and Toad (Meng Lo) are also teaming up to find the cash. No one really knows anyone else’s identity, but they all know that the others are in town.

Centipede is spotted leaving the murdered family’s house and is arrested by Lizard, other police, and Toad. However, the gambler who identifies the killer is bullied into identifying Toad as the real killer. Eventually, the Scorpion reveals himself, the Lizard and the kid team up and kick ass, and pretty much everybody dies.

This isn’t a movie to watch for the plot, though, because the plot can be difficult to follow, particularly with the odd dubbing in the film (it’s all I have…sue me). The real reasons to watch are the interesting martial arts battles and the even more interesting ways people are killed throughout. For instance, one person is silenced when a large hook is shoved down his throat and his esophagus ripped out. Another has a needle pushed through a nostril into his brain. My favorite, though, is a drugged prisoner is asphyxiated by covering his face with dampened cloths that eventually cut off his breathing—and no evidence of the crime! These killings aren’t carried out with the same joy of a typical martial arts film; in each case, the camera lingers a little over the fallen, and the audience is left with a feeling not of joy or righteousness, but of sorrow for the death.

The martial styles here are inventive, and there’s an entertaining montage (that is frequently recalled) at the beginning to differentiate the five. The Centipede, for instance, is blindingly fast and strikes frequently. The Snake uses a two-handed technique with one hand shaped like fangs and the other like a tail. The Scorpion concentrates on weapons and kicks, and also keeps his hands shaped like Scorpion pincers. Lizard can climb walls and defy gravity while Toad has an iron skin and can bend metal with his fists.

Most impressive here are the actual fights. There aren’t too many of them for a movie of this style, but it’s definitely quality over quantity. The choreography is excellent, and except for the Lizard and the kid standing on the walls parallel to the ground, there’s no wire work here. There are a ton of acrobatic stunts being done for real—jumps, kicks, flips, and more, and it’s the real deal.

So, while the plot is overly complex and too talky in places, this is a film that does need to be seen to be appreciated. Great Kung Fu, great fights. The acting is weird in spots, characters react bizarrely to things, and the dubbing is terrible. This film contains one of my favorite weird lines of dialogue when the kid shouts at the Lizard “Poison Clans rock the world!” Weird…but it’s true. They rock the world.

Why to watch Wu Du: Six extremely talented martial artists beating on each other.
Why not to watch: Ridiculous dialogue, bizarre reactions, and bad dubbing.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Abandon All Hope...

Film: Clerks
Format: VHS from Maple Park Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television

Everyone hates his or her job at some point. Even when a job is good, most of us would much rather be doing something other than working most days. Heck, I got paid to play video games for 12 years, and there were plenty of days I’d have rather spent in bed or watching television instead of sitting in front of the computer trying to get past one more level of whatever Command & Conquer game I was working on at the time.

Clerks, as the name of the film suggests, takes this concept and puts it in the heart of that really crappy job you really hated, the one you had that summer in high school where you watched the clock, hated the customers, and only wanted to make it to quitting time before killing someone. This is the first film by Kevin Smith, and according to legend, he created the film on a nothing budget funding in part by an insurance settlement, credit cards, and loans from his family. Additionally, for the first time in film history, more was spent on the soundtrack (about $27,000) than on the film itself ($26,800).

Clerks tells the story of Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), a guy who works in a convenience store selling cigarettes to virtually all of his customers. His store is connected to a video store run by his friend, Randal (Jeff Anderson). Dante is called into work on his day off by his boss, and, through a series of miscommunications and outright lies, ends up working the entire day.

Dante is conflicted for a number of reasons. He has a girlfriend named Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) who has been much more active sexually than he is comfortable with. He also carries a torch for his ex, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), who is evidently getting married to someone else despite the fact that she and Dante have been communicating with each other again.

Outside, the constant guardians of the Quick Stop are the twin drug dealers, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith). These two deal drugs to Dante’s customers and sometimes sneak in and shoplift when Randal and Dante are otherwise engaged in conversation.

The selling point of Clerks is the dialogue throughout the film. In addition to being filthy (91 f-bombs or equivalent in a movie that runs 92 minutes), the dialogue is funny and often incredibly clever. The characters, in addition to discussing jobs worse than their own (jizz mopper at the local porno palace is Randal’s choice for bad job), talk about Star Wars films, the death of a girl they went to high school with, Dante’s inability to choose which woman to be with, and Randal’s hatred of all things customer.

Part of the charm of Clerks is that regardless of where the action takes place, it all has the same grainy look to it. While likely done to save a couple of dollars from the nothing budget, it all has the look of being filmed on video surveillance cameras, the kind found in a typical convenience store. There are no special effects due to the tiny filming budget, but there aren’t really any that are needed for this film.

The thing to watch here isn’t necessarily the plot, or the variety of things that happen to Dante or that Randal does to Dante throughout the day. What’s most interesting is the difference between the two characters. Dante, despite the fact that he hates his job and despite the fact that nothing good ever happens to him in this film, tries to be responsible, courteous, and a good employee. His reward for this is more work, more abuse, and at one point, a $500 fine caused by Randal. Randal, on the other hand, is rude, openly mocks and yells at his customers, leaves the video store closed for hours at a time, steals food from the Quick Stop, and is never punished. Essentially, Dante pays all of Randal’s penance.

Clerks, whether by virtue of the tremendously funny dialogue, the setting, the tone, or the overall thrust of the movie, is a certified cult classic and has a large enough fan base that Smith made a much larger-budget sequel. I loved this film the first time I saw it, mostly for the character of Randal, who tends to have the best lines, or at least the lines that anyone who has ever worked a crappy job would really like to say.

Now, watching this film again, it’s sad to say that it’s really poorly acted. I didn’t expect technical wizardry, multiple camera angles, or any of the finery expected in a big budget (or even an actually budgeted) film, but I would have liked the characters to speak far more naturally. Most frequently sound like they are acting in a stage play rather than acting in a movie. Quite a bit of the action, particularly the longer dialogue scenes, is disturbingly wooden. Caitlin, for instance, sounds exactly like she’s reading lines of dialogue instead of having a conversation, and that’s disappointing. Randal, interestingly enough, rarely has this problem, which may be another reason he’s my favorite part of the movie.

Regardless of this, Clerks is worth watching. If you currently have a job you wish you didn’t have, watch for all of the things you wish you could do at your job. Catharsis isn’t the same as doing it yourself, but there’s a joy in watching Randal spit water all over a customer, sell smokes to a child, and order pornography in front of a paying customer with a child.

Incidentally, I watched this today in part because I was still reeling from El Norte. It worked. I feel better.

Why to watch Clerks: Great dialogue.
Why not to watch: It’s not very well acted, sad to say.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Going South up North

Film: El Norte (The North)
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Since Humanity created the idea of a monetary system and an economy, the story has essentially been the same. There are two basic types of people in the world. There are the few who have much and the many who have very little. Those who have a lot want to keep it and want more, while those who have very little would like to have a little taste of the good life. This is the basic story of El Norte, a tale of those who have not trying to make a better life for themselves by heading north to a land they believe has everything they have dreamed of and hoped for.

We begin with the person of Arturo Xuncax (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), a man who picks coffee beans on a plantation in Guatemala. Happy with the land he works on and the work he does, Arturo wants a better life for himself, his friends, and his family. He is slowly organizing a group of peasants to fight back against the powers that be in his village, but the men in charge have discovered these plans, and have sent a hit squad to kill him and everyone with whom he is meeting.

Arturo’s death and subsequent beheading (a warning to those who would organize) causes his son Enrique (David Villalpando) to kill one of the men who attacked the farmers. When Artro’s widow (Alicia del Lago) is taken and nothing is keeping them in their village, Enrique and his sister Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) decide to leave their country and head to the north, through Mexico to the United States, a land where, as their friend and neighbor informs them, even the poor have flush toilets and their own cars.

We follow the pair north through Mexico as they move toward the United States. They start their journey with a friendly, if foul-mouthed truck driver, then a bus to Tijuana, where they meet up with Jaime, who is also planning to cross into the United States. He claims to not need a coyote (a man who gets immigrants across illegally) to make the crossing. Sadly, once across the border, Jaime turns out to be quite a bit nastier than he let on; he attempts to rob the pair, but they fight him off. Jaime runs off when the border patrol scoops them up.

Back in Tijuana, Enrique finds the coyote (Abel Franco) used by a friend from his old village. The coyote has retired, but agrees to help as a favor to his old friend. He takes Enrique and Rosa through sewer tunnels connecting the U.S. to Mexico, a safer but much less pleasant path to the fabled north. To get the money to cover the coyote’s expenses, Rosa proposes to sell her mother’s silver necklace, which gives them the money they need to reach the United States. A few mummified cats and a rat swarm later (this will become important eventually), and our Guatemalans have finally reached their goal: California.

And then the second half of the movie starts. Rosa is sent to work in a laundry, while Enrique finds day labor as a busboy in a high-class restaurant. The honeymoon is over quickly, however, as they realize that the same system that was in place in their old village. Those who have give as little as possible to those who have not. Even Los Angeles is quickly a disappointment, as the neighborhood they live in looks exactly like Mexico City.

Life becomes a slow slide down for Rosa and Enrique even as it seems that things are looking up for them, and their lives spiral out of control toward the inevitable and truly wrenching climax.

Having seen this movie, I can officially classify it as what Roger Ebert calls a “Gandhi” film, a film that you are happy to have seen and have no desire to ever see again. My God, this film is depressing, and also long. Watching this, I had the constant sense of impending doom—I spent the entire film expecting the worst to happen at any moment and at every moment. Every decision they make is the wrong one, but every option they have is the wrong one anyway. They have no good options and no good choices ever, and there is nothing they can do about it. I don’t want to have to live through this again. Glad I saw it, and happier that it’s in my rearview mirror.

I can’t fault the film or the story. It is beautifully filmed and compelling, completely engaging. But it’s one additional bad event from being a wrist-slitter of a film, the sort of thing that makes you wonder why we even bother to try anything at all. The emotional impact of this film is like someone gunning down everyone in It’s a Wonderful Life right after George Bailey loses everything. I could barely watch the last 15 minutes, so ready was I for it to be over. This is true to the extent that I planned on watching a second film today, but couldn’t muster up the emotional cojones to do it.

Why to watch El Norte: It’s brilliant.
Why not to watch: Because you’ll be a suicide risk for at least a week.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's Cooler than Godzilla?

Film: Gwoemul (The Host)
Format: DVD from Lemont Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

It’s a cliché to think that all giant monsters come from Japan. They don’t. Gojira does, Mothra does, Gamera the flying turtle does, but there are other places in Asia that have their own giant monsters. For instance, from South Korea we get the mutant beast in Gwoemul.

There are some significant differences between this critter and the traditional guys in rubber suits stomping on models of Tokyo. For one thing, while Gamera was the friend of children and Godzilla had a certain pathos, the mutant here is a completely destructive force. It’s an eating machine to be feared, run away from, and hidden from. No one feels sorry for this monster, wants it to survive, or thinks it’s anything but terrifying. Another difference is that this creature is entirely a production of CGI rather than a guy in a giant suit.

Gwoemul is Korea’s entry into the “scary monster created by the foibles of Humanity” film genre, and it’s a damn good one. The monster is creative and interesting, terrifying and brutal. The movie itself is not strictly a horror movie, though. Much of the film is comedic intentionally, and a lot of the comedy works really well. Additionally, it’s a family drama as we deal with the various battles and infighting of the Park family.

We start in an American military base where an American official tells his Korean counterpart to dump the old dirty bottles of formaldehyde down the drain. As the shot pulls back, we discover that it’s not just a few bottles of bad formaldehyde but dozens, hundreds, all being poured directly into the Han River. We jump ahead a few years and see a pair of fishermen capture something tiny and horribly mutated in the river, but it escapes. We move ahead to 2006 when a suicide jumper notices something big swimming under the water before he dives in.

From here we focus on the Park family. Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song) is the failure of the family, a man who sleeps too much and doesn’t do much of anything well. As his father Hie-bong (Byun Hee-bong) explains, as a child, Gang-Du didn’t get enough protein in his diet and it affected him badly. The one thing he has done well in his life is have a daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). Gang-Du’s sister Nam-Joo (Bae Doon-na) is an Olympic-level archer with the problem of taking too long to shoot. There’s also another brother, Nam-il (Hae-il Park), who is an unemployed alcoholic college graduate with a lot of resentment for the rest of his family.

One day, while Nam-Joo is competing, the huge mutated creature comes out of the depths of the Han River and attacks the people on the shore. This includes the Park family. Gang-Du, fulfilling his role as tragicomic relief tries to pull his daughter out of the path of the creature, but grabs the wrong child. Hyun-seo is evidently eaten by the monster before it dives back into the river.

Those who encountered the creature, particularly Gang-Du are quarantined that evening, but as Gang-Du looks for something to eat, his phone rings. It turns out that Hyun-seo was spat out by the monster in a sewer it is using as a lair. The girl is still alive, and the family breaks out of quarantine to locate and rescue her.

There’s a lot to love in this movie. For a starter, the creature itself is a wonder. Huge and menacing, it is truly a terrifying creation, and its mutation is especially interesting. Dwarfed, useless legs hang from its back for instance. It looks like a gigantic multi-legged tadpole with huge fangs, a completely original creation, and one that is fascinating to watch. It also looks great in most of the shots, like a real thing instead of an obvious CGI creation.

There are other wonderful additions as well. The dinner scene of the four family members hunting for Hyun-seo, for instance is extremely touching. Settling down to a hurried meal, Hyun-seo suddenly appears in their midst. No one says a word to her and she doesn’t speak, but everyone feeds her, strokes her hair and tends to her, a sort of group delusion. It’s as if the family wants to help the girl and comfort her so much that the all hallucinate her presence in their midst, or that by pretending to feed her, they can truly comfort her in her sewer. That this immediately flashes to a scene of the girl collecting rainwater in her hand makes it especially touching.

As with all movies worth their salt, Gwoemul is concerned with far more than just a kick-ass monster and the potential survival of the little girl in the sewer. While there are some truly disturbing scenes (the monster disgorging a seemingly endless supply of human bones from its gullet is my favorite), there’s much more here than gore and shock value. Gwoemul feels like it could be an environmental film, and certainly the creation of the monster makes that an obvious conclusion. But there’s far more, and the environmental message is all but ignored or left only as a cause of the initial problem rather than the point of the film.

What is far more important is the action of the governments of South Korea and the U.S. The quarantine is created because of a virus scare coming from the creature. It quickly becomes evident that there is no virus, and the government is trying to prevent panic and keep a lid on the problem of the creature. The government acts in appalling ways throughout the film, less to keep the citizenry safe and more to protect itself from the backlash of an angry and frightened population.

Gwoemul is a masterful film, moving from emotion to emotion at whipcrack pace and running roughshod over typical horror movie conventions. It is scary, touching, funny, and smart, a great film not just of its own genre, but any genre.

Why to watch Gwoemul: Funny, scary, touching, sweet and sad. And a kick-ass monster.
Why not to watch: You don’t like America being the bad guys.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

You Dirty (Yellow) Rat!

Film: Angels with Dirty Faces
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were the two classic gangsters in film back in the day. Robinson could act, but for my money, Cagney was the man. Robinson had a slick evil about him, an oiliness that makes me want to loathe his gangster characters even while I can appreciate the man’s skill. Cagney, on the other hand, makes me want to root for him.

This is definitely the case in Angels with Dirty Faces, which, along with The Public Enemy is one of the roles that made Cagney famous for being a tough, nasty bastard of a gangster. Here, as William “Rocky” Sullivan, Cagney is precisely as you probably imagine him in impressions. Constantly hitching his shoulders and spewing back alley criminal cant, Sullivan is the epitome of a guy who wants to live big and doesn’t really care if he lives or dies. All he really wants is a little respect and a lot of notoriety before he goes down thumbing his nose at the authorities.

The story starts with our twin heroes, Rocky and his best friend Jerry Connolly (played as an adult by Cagney’s real-life good friend and frequent co-star Pat O’Brien) getting in to trouble down at the train yard. They break into a boxcar and try to make off with fountain pens. Spotted by the yard bull, they run for it. Jerry is faster and gets away, while Rocky is nabbed and sent off to reform school. In a montage we see that Rocky isn’t so much reformed as hardened, and he ends this part of his criminal career with a three-year stint in the pen. Before going down, he arranges with his lawyer, James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) to keep the $100,000 he’s stolen, money Rocky wants back eventually.

At the end of his time in prison, Rocky gets out and drops in on his old pal Jerry, who is now the parish priest of the old neighborhood. He also runs in to Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan), once a girl he teased and now a dishy blonde with something of a checkered past. He also looks up his old pal Frazier and discovers a few things. Frazier doesn’t have the money anymore, and the crime in the area is now controlled by Max Keefer (George Bancroft).

As Rocky schemes for a way to get his money, he encounters a sextet of young local toughs played by the Dead End Kids. This kids all look up to gangsters like Rocky and Rocky doesn’t do much to discourage their hero worship, taking an interest in them, particularly their leader, Soapy (Billy Halop). But the criminal element isn’t sitting around—they’ve organized a hit on Rocky. When that fails, Rocky collects his money, but decides to stick around, if only to rub it into the faces of the men who’ve double-crossed him. The trouble really starts when Father Connolly decides to fight the corruption in the area, taking on all comers, including Rocky himself.

This is a fascinating movie for several reasons. Predominantly, it addresses the idea of bad guys, toughs, convicts, and killers being heroes in the mind of the public, particularly the youth. There’s more than a small element of truth to the notion that bad guys are frequently held in high regard, particularly by youngsters, and more particularly by those who are dead broke.

It’s also a product of its times. Father Connolly wants nothing more than to destroy Rocky’s influence with the kids, and he’s painted in the film as a pure soul, one who does only good. Rocky, interestingly, isn’t shown to be a bad guy. He’s a killer, certainly, but he kills only when and because his friend Jerry is put in danger. This doesn’t stop Connolly from essentially leading Rocky to his doom, though, because Jerry has a higher calling.

And it doesn’t end there. The end of this movie is still shocking despite the age of this film. At the time, I’m sure the shock came from Cagney’s actions in his role. Today, the shock comes from the appalling behavior of Father Connolly, who asks the world from his doomed friend. In short, Father Connolly acts like a complete dick. I wanted Rocky to punch him straight in the mug. Even more, I wanted to punch him straight in the mug.

What’s interesting to me is the movie conventions of the time. When Rocky fires his gun at anyone, he doesn’t aim and fire, but flicks the weapon like he has to launch the bullets from the barrel. A few times it looks ridiculous to the point of comedy even though it wasn’t intended to be funny.

Is it a great movie? Hard to say. The morality is strange for this day and age, and the ending is bizarre in the extreme. However, Cagney is brilliant in this role. Absolutely mesmerizing, and worth watching. If for no other reason, he is the reason to hunt this film down.

Why to watch Angels with Dirty Faces: Classic Cagney, Bogart as a bad guy, and arguably the source for all of the Cagney impersonations from Rich Little to Bugs Bunny.
Why not to watch: Father Connolly is a gigantic tool.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Westerns Then and Now

Films: Unforgiven, Destry Rides Again
Format: DVDs from personal collection on little bitty bedroom television.

Of all styles of film working today, it is the western that is the most frowned upon. Even horror movies get more respect than a typical western. I think this stems not from the genre itself so much as the perception and conventions of that genre that people have learned.

If you look at old westerns (and we’re looking at an old one today), there are plenty of reasons to be jaded by them. They all have the same basic plot—cattle ranchers/railroad barons/greedy bar owners want to control all of the land in the area, so they plot to run out the sheep herders/farmers/honest ranchers and townsfolk, but a hero(s) rides into town to put the bad guys in their place, shoot everyone wearing a metaphorical black hat, and then ride off into the sunset. It’s a pretty tired plot.

With Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood wanted to make a more realistic western, one that didn’t necessarily follow the standard plot that many of us have come to know and be bored by. Oh sure, a stranger rides into town bent on revenge, but there’s much more to the story than that. The characters themselves are far less stock than in a traditional western, and we get to see some very different sides of them.

In this case, the main character is William Munny (Eastwood), who is confronted by a young man calling himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). The Kid has heard a rumor of a woman in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming who was cut up by a pair of cowboys. There’s a $1,000 reward for killing the two men responsible, and the Kid wants some backup. Munny, however, has given up the life of an assassin, but agrees to come because he needs the cash. He won’t come without his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to help out.

As it turns out, the story is mostly true. A prostitute named Delilah (Anna Levine) had her face slashed by a cowboy who was angered by the fact that she laughed at the size of his…natural weapon in his pants. The other prostitutes pooled their money as a reward, but they are confronted by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the town’s sheriff. He won’t allow guns in Big Whiskey, and he keeps the peace by any means he can, even to the point of shooting a man just for riding into town with a gun.

The first person attracted to the reward is English Bob (Richard Harris), who comes with his biographer, an Easterner named W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in tow. After Daggett trashes Bob, Beauchamp switches his allegiance, deciding that Daggett is a much more interesting subject for a book.

Things, eventually, come to a head. Ned gets captured by the law after he loses his nerve while Munny, who gave up his life of sin for the sake of his now-dead wife, slowly but surely reverts back to his old ways with the gun.

Unforgiven is an appropriately named film, as it is itself completely unforgiving. Westerns have long had a reputation of being family fare, somewhat tamer in terms of language and sexuality. Again, I think this comes not specifically from the genre or the subject matter, but from the fact that westerns were popular in a time when the code for films was much stricter than it is now. Unforgiven doesn’t fall into that particular trap. There’s not much in the way of sex, but there’s plenty of language throughout, which I find refreshing in a western.

In terms of what this story is about, there are a number of possibilities. It could be argued that the film concerns itself with crime, punishment, and the nature of revenge, and that argument wouldn’t be too difficult to make. It could just as easily be argued that Unforgiven is less about revenge and more about the nature of one man and his inability to change who he is no matter the cost or the desire to change. It could simply be a rip-roaring story. What do I think? I think Unforgiven is a big enough story that it can handle all of these and more, like also being about the fact that destruction begets destruction, and that even for the innocent, frontier justice is sometimes the best we can expect. Unforgiven was the first western in a dog’s age to win anything at the Academy Awards, and it deserved the ones it won.

Destry Rides Again is much more a western of the old school, with guys in white hats and guys in black hats. Tom Destry (James Stewart) is the son of a famous lawman. He’s called to the town of Bottleneck by his father’s old deputy, Wash (Charles Winninger). Wash has recently been appointed sheriff of the town because of the death of the old sheriff at the hands of Kent (Brian Donlevy), a crooked local businessman. Kent’s partner in crime is his showgirl, Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich). Wash was promoted to the position because in addition to being a former deputy, he’s also the town drunk.

Destry arrives, and it turns out that he’s not what anyone expected. For instance, instead of showing up with guns blazing, he shows up with little parables about folks he knows and the refusal to carry a gun. Destry is the town laughing stock for a bit, but soon settles into his role. That role is essentially keeping the letter of the law while finding out what he can about Kent and the rest of the bad guys in town.

Destry Rides Again is definitely a product of its time. It’s a clean western with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, with the possible exception of Dietrich, who may well be the prototype of the hooker with a heart of gold. There are a few painful stereotypes, in particular the Russian (Mischa Auer) who is less a Russian and more of a generic foreigner, and Frenchy’s maid, who is a baby step away from Butterfly McQueen’s role in Gone With the Wind.

It’s a fine little film, but for the life of me, I can’t work out why it’s on this list. Is it Dietrich? Stewart? The story? I’m not really sure. I can’t say that it’s a bad movie, or one that I’d refuse to watch again, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why it’s a must-see. Marlene Dietrich does a few numbers, but honestly, I think her singing is less vampy and more…well…flat.

Why to watch Unforgiven: A classic western with modern sensibilities, and some truly memorable characters.
Why not to watch: ^*$@ing language all the ^%^*%ing time.

Why to watch Destry Rides Again: A classic western with Jimmy Stewart.
Why not to watch: Marlene Dietrich can’t sing.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! A-yi-yi!

Films: The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom
Format: DVD from Galena Public Library through interlibrary loan (Priscilla), DVD from personal collection (Strictly Ballroom), both on big ol’ television.

Ten years ago, the average American opinion of an Australian would have been inextricably tied up in the person of Paul Hogan. An Australian, as far as America new, looked, sounded, and acted pretty much exactly like Crocodile Dundee. They all wore hats with the little dingleballs hanging off them, carried huge knives, and said “G’day, mate” at every possible opportunity.

That, of course, is a ridiculous stereotype, as ridiculous as the stinkiness of the French, the stupidity of Americans, or the math genius of Asians. Certainly some Australians are like that, just as some French are stinky, some Americans are stupid, and some Asians are great at math. Just not all of them.

Proof comes in the form of today’s two films, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Strictly Ballroom. Both of these movies fight against that macho man stereotype, showing us some very different blokes from down under.

Few are as different as our three main characters in Priscilla. Two drag queens, Tick/Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce) and a transsexual named Bernadette (Terence Stamp) take a job to put on a cabaret show all the way on the other side of Oz. To get there, they don’t fly but purchase a bus they christen “Priscillia.” The story is their trip from one end of their country to the other through the desert.

Along the way we discover a number of things about the trio. Bernadette has just buried her husband. Tick, despite being flamboyantly gay, is married and has a young son. Adam may have a drug problem, and has a dangerous run-in with a group of homophobes in the outback. Along the way, the trio bitches at each other, Priscilla breaks down in the middle of the desert, and there are fabulous dresses everywhere (my personal favorite is Mitzi’s dress made of flip-flops).

There isn’t really a plot in this film in the sense that there’s no real rising action throughout. The group encounters a problem, overcomes the problem, and moves on. But that’s not really what the film is about. Instead, it’s about acceptance, both of oneself and acceptance from others. Mitzi, Bernadette, and Felicia discover that while they may well be talented lip-synch performers and are undoubtedly fabulous, prejudice abounds almost everywhere they go.

There are some tremendously funny sequences. Their performance for the aboriginal tribe, for instance, is a highpoint, as is the scene where new friend Bob’s wife shows her talents in the bar. There are also touching scenes between the three performers as well as plenty of bitchy moments. Ultimately, Priscilla is a film less about acceptance from others and more about accepting oneself and being happy in one’s own life. It’s sweet, bitchy, a little trashy, and a lot of fun.

Strictly Ballroom is another one a bit short on plot, but I like it more. In the rough and tumble world of amateur ballroom dancing, young Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) is an up-and-comer. However, he’s less interested in dancing by regulation and much more interested in dancing his own steps. His partner Liz (Gia Carides) is stolen away by one of the great dance champions, the drunk Ken Railings (John Hannan). However, tucked away in his own parents’ dance school is Fran (Tara Morice), an ugly duckling waiting to blossom into a champion in her own right.

Based on that synopsis, you can probably figure out exactly how this movie goes. In fact, you can substitute any sport for dance in this movie and you’ve seen this movie a number of times already. This is, ultimately, virtually every sports movie ever made mated with Pygmalion.

But that’s secondary to the fact that there is a joy to this film that is unmistakable. I dislike musicals in general, but I love this movie enough that I sought out a copy and got one for myself. The dancing is fabulous, and there is a real charm to the couple of Scott and Fran. They’re a believable couple, and as a viewer, I want them to be together.

While it’s rare for me to say this, who cares about plot here? Watch the dancing and fall in love with the two as they samba. It’s a thing of beauty.

Of the two films, I’m far more likely to watch Strictly Ballroom again. I enjoyed Priscilla and found a lot of it really entertaining, but there’s not really enough there. The Adam character, for instance, is there mostly as a comic relief, and he’s good at it, but of the three main characters, he’s the one who doesn’t change. In Strictly Ballroom, every major player is different at the end, and that’s something I can respect.

Why to watch The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert: So much fabulousness in so few minutes.
Why not to watch: You have red state sensibilities.

Why to watch Strictly Ballroom: For the dancing.
Why not to watch: Because you hate dancing.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hello, My Childhood

Films: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Anyone in his or her late 30s to mid-40s now grew up on Star Wars. For many of us, myself included, what Lucas created was not so much a movie as a world we all wanted to be lost in. My most vivid memory of Star Wars is not the first time I saw it, nor even the year it came out, but the following summer.

Every Saturday morning, I would walk two houses down to my friend Pat’s house. We’d do chores for his mom, she’d pay us a couple of dollars, and she’d say, “Go see the movie.” For that entire summer, “the movie” at the Wheaton Theater was Star Wars. Pat and I saw it every Saturday from June through September. We got to where we could pretty much recite the entire film by heart. Our moms wouldn’t buy us the official blasters, so Pat and I made our own in his dad’s workshop. Man, we loved that movie.

Then came The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. For anyone remotely interested in science fiction, the trilogy represented a high point in science fiction, a bit of respectability in a genre that needed some. What followed were the inevitable battles between Star Wars geeks and Star Trek geeks, a cause of tension in the fan community and a cause of laughter and scorn for anyone not involved. For the record, I was not involved.

Lucas went back and added a bunch of stuff to the original trilogy and re-released them and then, finally, produced the original trilogy as well. And this is where I stepped away from the Church of Jedi. I saw Episode I in theaters, hated it, and swore off Star Wars in general. I still haven’t seen Episode II or III, and I don’t have any plans to. With the re-releases and the crappy new trilogy (yeah, I know I haven’t seen two of them, but Episode I sucked hard), I decided that Lucas had screwed my childhood enough. I was done.

This is why, when it came time to watch the original trilogy again, I didn’t go looking for the revamped versions, but I retreated to my old VHS copies of the original original trilogy. The one where Han shoots first and there are no giant damn lizards walking around Mos Eisley spaceport.

It’s not really worth going into plot here. You’ve seen the trilogy or you haven’t. If you haven’t, you’re either too young to remember the films when they first came out or you really don’t care about them. If you have, you already know the story. You know it’s a story of good versus evil and that it’s a western in space. It’s a classic space opera with laser guns, spectral forces, and the most evil of evils to grace the screen since The Exorcist.

But let’s be honest here. As much as I may love the original Star Wars, it’s hardly an original story. Consider this: Frodo/Luke Skywalker grows up in an out-of-the-way part of the world/planet. He discovers that only he can journey with his group of companions to destroy the One Ring/huge space station to prevent Sauron/the Evil Galactic Empire from destroying everything good and nice.

But it is fun, and for an entire generation it influenced the thoughts of the people who write screenplays and direct movies. What Star Wars does really, really well is create a completely believable universe for what it is. Everything meshes perfectly as if it were a film about the real world. The philosophy, the worlds, the creatures, even the galactic empire all makes sense. It also comes with its own vocabulary—X-Wing, TIE Fighter, proton torpedoes, light saber, etc. Even the sounds are iconic—there’s nothing else in the movies that sounds like a TIE Fighter.

Even with the improvement in technology, and this has been quantum several times over, Star Wars still looks vibrant and still contains within it a sense of childish wonder and fantasy. Even though I can seen the equivalent of the wires, there is no faster way for me to recapture my childhood than to sit down with Luke, Han, Leia of the shifting accent, R2, C3PO (the galaxy's gayest robot) and the rest of the crew. This is true to the extent that hearing the Twentieth Century Fox musical overture immediately makes me think of Star Wars.

From Star Wars we move to The Empire Strikes Back, which is the holy of holies for any Star Wars geek worthy of his or her mettle. Empire is the best of the trilogy for any number of reasons. We get more exotic locales (Hoth, the cloud city) and are introduced to what would become one of the most criminally underused bad guys in history: Boba Fett. We also get the first view of the Imperial AT-ATs, which, to extend the LotR metaphor, are quite a bit like oliphants.

What sets Empire apart is that unlike a traditional movie trilogy, this movie is a huge down-note for the good guys. Nothing good happens to the Rebellion in this film. In a sense, there is more of a literary feel to this trilogy as compared with other film trilogies. The Alien films, for instance, end with the alien(s) getting shot/killed/pushed out an airlock/whatever. Each movie contains its own story. More modern trilogies tend to be less trilogy and more introduction and two follow-ups. Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, had a great first film followed by a pair of movies that felt like two halves of one whole. Star Wars, however, is a real trilogy. As the middle installment, Empire is the place where the heroes are placed in the worst situations, where reality becomes as dire as it ever will be.

Everything ends in Return of the Jedi. Of the original three, Jedi is my least favorite. Certainly the technology is better, but…it’s those damn Ewoks. In Lucas’s original vision, the third installment was to take place on Kashyyyk, the homeworld of the Wookies . Instead, we get furry midgets with spears dancing around a campfire. What could have been a group of gigantic dog/monkies kicking ass and taking names turned into a cutesy forest romp with primitive Care Bears.

(Yes, I knew the name and spelling of the Wookie homeworld without looking it up. I did, after all, write the official guide for LucasArts’ Star Wars Rebellion for the PC and co-wrote the guide for Star Wars Force Commander. And I’m also a geek.)

No matter the fact that the effects aren’t what they used to be. No matter the fact that nothing the size and scope of the Death Star could ever really be created. No matter it’s silly. No matter that George Lucas can’t write dialogue. These three movies are an indelible part of movie history, as important to film and popular culture as anything ever created. They deserve every bit of the acclaim they’ve received.

Why to watch Star Wars: The most important piece of popular science-fiction…ever.
Why not to watch: I can’t think of a reason.

Why to watch The Empire Strikes Back: The bad guys freakin’ win!
Why not to watch: The bad guys freakin’ win!

Why to watch Return of the Jedi: You’ve already come this far.
Why not to watch: Dancing teddy bears.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ahoy, Proletarian Masses!

Film: Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin)
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Sometimes, you can tell the where and when of a film within the first few moments of footage. I commented earlier, for instance, that Amelie could only be a French movie, and I stand by that assessment. In this case, Sergei Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin is undeniably Russian, and undeniably filmed within a decade of the Russian Revolution.

The movie begins with a battleship heading home after defeat in the Sino-Russian War. What we discover immediately is that the ship is at war with itself. The officers of the ship are brutal, petty, angry, and lord their power over the enlisted men. This happens immediately in the film when an officer beats a young sailor for hanging partway out of his hammock. The next day, the men complain about the quality of the meat they are being forced to eat.

We’re given a close-up of the meat through the pince-nez of the medical officer, and the meat is crawling with worms. The officer, however, states that the meat isn’t rotten, but merely infested with maggots, which can be rinsed out with brine. Based on the quality of the meat, some of the men refused to eat the borscht. Based on this, a sailor named Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) believes that the men are being treated worse than Russian POWs in Japanese camps. Insurrection is mounting.

Soon, all hands are called to the deck, and the captain calls out anyone who refused to eat the borscht. A small group is left standing alone, and, due to their insubordination at the refusal of food, they are going to be executed by firing squad. A group of guards are brought on deck and the condemned are covered in canvas to make the shooting of them easier for the troops. Additionally, a Russian Orthodox cleric tells the men under the canvas to repent.

This is where the action changes abruptly—the troops don’t want to shoot their shipmates. Vakulinchuk tells the men with the guns to ignore their orders, and they do. Mutiny takes hold of the men on the ship, and they rebel, tossing officers into the sea and taking control of the ship. While this takes place, the priest is knocked down a staircase and pretends to be dead, and an officer gets hold of a gun and shoots Vakulinchuk in the back of the head, making the man who started the revolt its first martyr.

Now under the control of the rank-and-file, the Potyomkin sails into Odessa. Vakulinchuk’s body is placed in a tent on the docks under a sign that says (depending on the translation) either “for a spoonful of borscht” or “for a bowl of soup.” The tragic death of the rebel leader infects the people of Odessa, who now wish to support the men of the rebellious battleship. This leads to a classic confrontation between the citizens of Odessa and the Cossacks, who attack down the Odessa steps with guns blazing. The Potyomkin sails off, leading to another confrontation, this time with the bulk of the Russian Navy.

Potyomkin is thought of as Eisenstein’s masterpiece. I can’t as yet speak to that, since my Eisenstein vocabulary is extremely limited. It is, like most silent films, highly stylized. There are great moments throughout, but it is the scene on the Odessa steps that is rightfully the most famous. What is fascinating to me is not the staging or the action here, but the evidence that the film vocabulary has changed dramatically since Eisenstein filmed this. For a modern audience, it’s evident that this scene could not have happened as filmed unless the steps in question are about a mile high. People run down the stairs en masse over and over, and yet there are still people at the top, far above the Cossacks chasing them.

This isn’t a complaint, but an observation. When Eisenstein made Potyomkin, his audience was not nearly as versed in film as a modern audience and expectations were dramatically different. What a modern audience notices about a sequence like this is not what an audience in the 1920s would have seen.

The emotional center of the film is its firm belief in the proletarian sailors and people of Odessa. The officers on the ship are uniformly cruel, stupid, arrogant, and sadistic. The same is true of the Cossacks, who shoot children and stomp on the bodies of the fallen. The sailors themselves are downtrodden, but filled with revolutionary spirit. In short, Bronenosets Potyomkin is a victory of the proletarian masses over their bourgeoisie masters. The impotence of the church (Marx's opiate of the masses) as represented by the cleric is pure communist dogma. Looked at in this light, it comes as no shock that the film was made a year or so after the death of Vladimir Lenin.

Worth watching? Yep, if only for the cinematic history wrapped up in its short running time. This is not a movie to watch for the compelling story, no matter how compelling you find the story. This is a film that has been copied and studied for years—you’ll see pieces of its composition, design, and full scenes in other films everywhere you look.

Why to watch Bronenosets Potyomkin: A large chunk of cinematic style started here.
Why not to watch: Hooray for communism!